Is Westfield Stratford City truly evil?

Harriet Ryder

Since its announcement and recent opening, Westfield Stratford City has gracefully allowed itself to become the scapegoat of a nation increasingly ill at ease with its consumerist culture. On the same week as the opening, Unicef published a report stating that the UKs children had been found to be stuck in a materialistic trap, and journalists pounced on the report as though it was news to them, projecting their blame and frustration upon the monstrosity built at the entrance to the Olympic games: Westfield Stratford City.

Stratford City has always acted under the guise of an ‘urban redevelopment project’, but as author and critic Will Self points out, if he was given £1.45bn, he’d be able to create a lot more than the 10,000 jobs Westfield provides. Jobs which, incidentally, will go primarily to school leavers whose basic literacy level is so poor that they will have to be given basic tutoring by their employees. Rather than tackle the issue that Britain still has a shocking problem with adult illiteracy and vulnerable children slipping through the education system without adequate support, Stratford City is a convenient vessel through which to dispose of these youngsters, seamlessly integrating them into the giant sales machine. After all, what else do they need to know?

But is Westfield really that bad? Is it truly the conduit for evil that the I-barely-ever-shoppers have branded it as? It may be the largest shopping centre in Europe, and it may make a mockery of the history of the site it was built on, an area where East End labourers used to build trains. It may be a glittering ode to cheap, overseas production, debt and commodity fetishism.

Perhaps the deeper problem people seem to have with the complex is its close link to the Olympic games. 70% of visitors to London in 2012 will be obliged to enter the city through the sprawling mall, and even after it has served the 1.5 million tourists, it reaches a catchment area of 4 million locals. It’s an insult to the spirit of the Olympic games, critics cry. How could a tournament about peace, union and hope become so commercialized and sensationalised?

But is it really such a surprise? We ought to think back to the origins of the Greek Olympics, a competition devised in an ancient culture where control of the proletariat was ensured through a rigorous system of entertainment. With spectacles, shows and lavish games going on everywhere, how would anybody even have time to question the less-than-perfect politico-economic environment in which they lived? Distraction of the masses is a universally acknowledged technique of control. If we think of the origins of the very word ‘entertain’, we have a clue. In the 15th century, the word meant ‘to maintain someone in a state of mind’. The French word for entertainment, divertissement, literally means ‘to distract’. If anything, Westfield Stratford City isn’t an insult to the spirit of the games; it’s a fitting revival of the games’ original, sinister purpose.

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